Southwest Key considered giving up contracts over family separations


The Austin-based nonprofit operates 16 shelters in Texas for immigrant children.

The group’s leaders publicly opposed the child separation policy only after President Donald Trump ended it.

Leaders at an Austin-based nonprofit that operates 16 shelters for immigrant children in Texas considered ending its relationship with the federal government amid furor over President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, the organization’s CEO told the American-Statesman on Thursday.

“We said, what if we … didn’t take these kids?” said Juan Sanchez, founder and CEO of Southwest Key Programs, referring to the children separated from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S. border. “What if we just gave the whole thing up? And what if we just continue to do what we’re supposed to be doing?”

The group chose to keep its federal contracts, despite a flurry of criticism for taking in immigrant children separated from their parents under the policy ended Wednesday by Trump.

“Ultimately, the feelings of the majority of our staff was we’ve got to take care of these kids because our concern was what happens if we’re not around,” Sanchez said. “Who’s going to take care of these kids? Where are they going to go? The last thing we wanted them to do was spend any more time in detention, any more time in those cages that they had built for these kids, and we wanted them to be in a place where they’re taken care of, and we communicate with the families and we could reunite them the minute we had the opportunity to do that.”

RELATED: Austin nonprofit under fire for housing thousands of migrant children

After U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy in April and promised to prosecute anyone who enters the U.S. illegally, which meant removing children from adults, shelter operators contracting with the federal government, including Southwest Key, saw an influx of children separated from their parents.

Since the policy took effect, more than 2,000 children have been separated from adult family members along the entire length of the border. Between 500 and 600 of the children were in Southwest Key facilities Thursday, Sanchez said. The organization operates 26 shelters for immigrant children in three states under federal contracts.

Most of the children housed in Southwest Key shelters arrived in the U.S. without parents or guardians.

Responding to criticism

Southwest Key didn’t issue a statement publicly opposing the family separation policy until after Trump signed the order Wednesday ending the practice. “Southwest Key Programs does not support separating families at the border,” the organization said in a statement shared on Facebook.

BACKGROUND: The facts about Trump’s policy of separating families at the border

Sanchez said the statement was drafted before Trump took action, but that because of the group’s federal contracts, he and others at Southwest Key were in a difficult position and wrestled with how to respond to the criticism.

“As an agency, taking a position is something that had been difficult for us,” he said. “But what we do know is that children operate best, and parents operate best, when the family is together, and they thrive when the family is together. … Now, my hope is that it happens very quickly. When they say, ‘You now can reunite these families with their kids,’ we’re ready to go. … We’re very excited about that.”

Southwest Key was scrutinized for a reported 150 health inspection violations at its shelters, and in one case, as reported by Texas Monthly, the organization hired a case manager who had been arrested for possession of child pornography.

“We had 150 violations of standards, but I want to make it very clear: That’s over a three-year period of time, and it is responding to 75,000 policies that we have to adhere to,” he said. “So when you’ve got 75,000 different standards that you have to meet, and you have 150 violations over a three-year period, go look at any other licensed child care facility or detention facility, whatever, and see how many violations you find. We don’t like the fact that there were violations. Every one of those 150 have been taken care of, and they’ve been corrected.”

RELATED: Even before Trump threat, mothers and children separated at the border

As for the former case manager, Sanchez said the organization conducted a background check.

“We didn’t get any response when we did the background check, so we hired him,” he said. “But as soon as we found out that he was an inappropriate employee, we terminated him right away.”

‘Helping my friends’

Southwest Key will receive $995 million in federal money for a three-year period ending this fall to run its shelters. Southwest Key received $99.7 million in federal dollars on May 10, shortly after the administration’s policy took effect, and $147. 8 million on June 11, according to federal records.

Sanchez himself earns more than $770,000 annually. “We bring in $450 million, and I have 7,000 employees to manage,” he said, “and we’re in eight states in the country, and we have been doing this for 30 years. I think the salary’s justifiable.”

Sanchez said he will assemble a team of experts from around the country to help the nonprofit determine what, if anything, it should do differently in response to the family separation controversy.

Sanchez said he was inspired to start the nonprofit, which also operates the public charter school East Austin College Prep as well as youth justice and wellness programs, after seeing kids in his hometown of Brownsville get into trouble and lose the career dreams they once had.

“I told myself … when I grow up, I’m going to be a probation officer, or I’m going to do something that helps my friends,” he said. “And so when you look at what Southwest Key does now, whether it’s education, whether it’s unaccompanied minors or whether it’s juvenile justice, it’s helping my friends.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Texas News & Politics

FORECAST: Sunshine, high of 92; rainy days ahead starting Thursday
FORECAST: Sunshine, high of 92; rainy days ahead starting Thursday

Wednesday forecast for Austin: This could be the last day we see sunshine in the metro area until early next week as a low pressure system from Mexico moves into Texas, bringing possibly heavy rainfall this weekend, the National Weather Service said. Temperatures could reach 94 degrees in Austin on Wednesday as the heat index value, or the &ldquo...
In upset, GOP’s Flores defeats Democrat Gallego in Texas Senate runoff
In upset, GOP’s Flores defeats Democrat Gallego in Texas Senate runoff

Casting serious doubt on Democratic hopes for a blue wave in Texas, Republican Pete Flores defeated Democrat Pete Gallego in Tuesday’s runoff election for a vacant seat in the state Senate — a seat that had been safely Democratic in previous years. Flores will represent Senate District 19 when the Legislature convenes in January, filling...
Former New Orleans mayor urges fight against resurgent racism
Former New Orleans mayor urges fight against resurgent racism

These are not normal times, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Tuesday of the Trump presidency, and the way to preserve American values is to confront this abnormality head on, offering as an example the way he and other Louisianans fought the rise of the former Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke three decades ago when he made his foray into...
Wrong 911 call disrupts trial of man accused in numerous attacks
Wrong 911 call disrupts trial of man accused in numerous attacks

An aggravated sexual assault trial was disrupted Tuesday when Travis County prosecutors inadvertently played the wrong 911 call for the jury and, according to their counterparts at the defense table, violated defendant Nicodemo Coria-Gonzalez’s right to a fair trial. Coria-Gonzalez, 27, is accused of assaulting seven women between December 2015...
Central Health to reconsider budget, hold hearing about ending Sendero
Central Health to reconsider budget, hold hearing about ending Sendero

Within days of being diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer, about a year ago, Austin artist Chia Guillory began treatment. Today, she’s in remission. Guillory was able to receive care immediately, she told the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, only because of the subsidy she receives from the county’s health district, Central...
More Stories